What 30 Years with Nell Hill’s Has Taught Me About Decorating … and Life

Thirty years ago, my dad called me with a crazy proposition. Some folks in my hometown of Atchison, Kansas, thought there was a great need for a gourmet food store in town. Was I interested? I was young, had no money to invest in a start-up business and knew absolutely nothing about gourmet food, other than I liked to eat it. It was insane to even consider such a preposterous idea. But Dad was a hell of a salesman. And I knew in my gut this was the chance of a lifetime. So I resigned from my job, moved back to Atchison and opened the shop that would evolve into Nell Hill’s.

Growing and operating Nell Hill’s for the past 30 years has taught me a lot about decorating … and about life. Here are seven gems I’ve discovered that have enriched me as a person, as a store owner and as someone who can’t get enough of decorating.

1. It’s Important to Rethink Things

One of the things I love most about working at Nell Hill’s is the chance to meet all kinds of fabulous people. In fact, I’ve made my dearest friends through the store. But every once in a while, you meet someone who is a challenge to work with because they act so unpleasantly.  Through the years, I’ve learned that before you judge someone because of their behavior, it’s important to understand what they are going through. They may be facing a difficult challenge that is stealing their joy. So when you can, rethink people, considering them from a different perspective, and give them another chance.

The same principle can be applied to decorating. Sometimes you need to rethink your approach, whether it’s how you have decorated a space or how you’ve used an accent in the past. Be willing to try something new and come at things from a different perspective. For example, open up your cabinets, find pieces you have tucked away and consider how to use them in a new way. It could start as simply as pulling out that wonderful ironstone pitcher you never use, filling it with flowers and letting it add cheer to your bedroom dresser.

2. Take Everything in Balance

Each one of us is a wonderful mix of strengths and weaknesses, aren’t we? We may be dynamite at some things, but a work in progress in others. Managing lots of different types of people through the years has taught me that you need to take everyone on balance because usually their strengths far outweigh their weaknesses. For example, the employee who is chronically 15 minutes late for work may also be the one who skips lunch or stays late because she is working so hard.

Similarly, I would encourage you to take your home on balance. None of our homes are perfect, and if you’re like most of us, you have a list of things you’d like to change. But when you maximize the strengths of your home and minimize its weaknesses, it will be singularly beautiful. For instance, if your home lacks interesting architectural details, you can give it loads of character through your choice of wall color, artwork and furnishings.

3. Listen to People

Have you ever caught yourself doing this with a friend: Before she even finishes telling you about a problem she’s facing, you’ve already given her your solution?  Sometimes, it’s hard to listen and not interrupt or interject an opinion. But I’ve found that when you give someone your undivided attention, chances are that as they talk, they usually arrive at the right solution themselves. And, as you listen fully, you get a better understanding of the situation and can give her sound, helpful advice.

Time and again, I see this principle played out in the world of decorating. Far too often, well-intending designers or friends who love to decorate try to tell a homeowner what she wants, overruling her objections or waving off her concerns, instead of really listening to her. No doubt, these folks have a fabulous vision for the space. But if it’s not shared by the homeowner herself, she won’t be happy when the project is complete. I believe that when someone asks you for your opinion about decorating their home, you need to listen to them first, before you give any suggestions. If you disagree, gently offer your thoughts. But remember that in the end, it’s all about what they want because it’s their home.

4. Everyone Needs a Cheerleader

We all need people to come alongside us and cheer us on in life. It may be helping a friend gain the confidence she needs to go for that great new job. Or it may be offering a shoulder to cry on to a friend who is going through a tough time. They already know what to do; they just need someone in their corner, offering encouragement.

The same thing often happens when it comes to decorating. I love it when customers come to Nell Hill’s seeking solutions to their decorating challenges. While we are all about giving advice and coming up with great solutions, I’m always amazed by how often our customers already have the problem figured out. All they lack is the confidence to act on their plan. They just need a cheerleader.

5. Life is a Journey, Not a Destination

OK, I know this sounds like something you’d see written on a cheesy motivational poster. But it’s true! Sometimes we become so consumed with getting to our destination that we don’t enjoy where we are right now. This is especially true when it comes to decorating our homes, isn’t it? When we decide it’s time to redo a room, we want it all done yesterday, if not sooner.

I vividly remember this feeling when Dan and I moved into our historic fixer-upper. The house needed so much work that for years we spent nearly all our budget on structural improvements. Necessary, but not much fun. I would sit on a sawhorse in the construction zone that was my living room, drink my morning coffee and dream about how I wanted to decorate this space. Every day I came up with a different plan. At the time, I was impatient to be done. But now, looking back, I think I had more fun dreaming of what the room could be than I did actually finishing it.

Like most of us, you are probably decorating your home in increments, taking one step after another, as budget and time allow. Your destination is the beautiful finished product you see so vividly in your mind. But my advice is, enjoy the journey.

6. Pursue Your Passions

Like me, you are probably passionate about making your home a lovely, livable space that reflects your personality and style. But are you as passionate about everything else in your life?

Thirty years ago, I decided to take a leap of faith and purse a career that has brought me immense joy. Don’t get me wrong – there have been a lot of ups and downs. It took me a while to figure out what Nell Hill’s should be, and in the early days, I barely brought home a paycheck. I’ve had to navigate through some tough economic conditions. And I’ve had to learn how to manage everything from inventory to employees to technology. But I have loved every minute of it.

What is your passion? Is it raising your kids? Building your own business? Helping people out of poverty and addiction? Promoting the arts? Advancing your education? Whatever it is, pursue it with your whole heart.

7. Put in the Work – It’s Worth it

This may sound old school, but I firmly believe in hard work. I have found that when you put a lot of yourself into something, you usually reap the rewards. That’s true in your relationships, in your career, in your hobbies and even in your decorating.

A few weeks ago, I threw a 90th birthday party for my mom. I was swamped at work, but I knew that every minute I put into making this party special for Mom and her guests would be well spent. So I ran my rear off for several days, planning a sit-down dinner for 25. I shined the silver and arranged bouquets of fresh flowers, making sure the environment was as special as my Mom. Next time you have an event at your home, put in the time necessary to make it magical – it will be worth it!

Next Week … I’ll share some tips and photos for making your Thanksgiving table splendid.